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The French philosopher Roland Barthes famously announced the “death of the author” in 1967. The following year, the American Land artist Robert Smithson predicted the “fall of the studio”, which he hoped would mean artists escaping a prison of narcissism to engage with the world more directly and more humbly. Today’s most celebrated artists’ studios, such as Olafur Eliasson’s in Berlin, are more likely to be home to a multidisciplinary collective of talent than a solitary masculine boudoir from la vie bohème. Studio Olafur Eliasson is—at least in part—open to public inspection, a far cry again from the traditionally cultivated professional exclusivity of the artist’s studio.

Pliny the Elder recounts that when Alexander the Great visited the studio of Apelles, the greatest of Greek artists, Alexander was enthused “to talk a great deal about painting without any real knowledge of it, and Apelles would politely advise him to drop the subject, saying the boys engaged in grinding the colours were laughing at him”. So, the studio of antique legend was a place of inverted etiquette, a space where the laws of economics were mystically suspended and from which emerged commodities bearing a value above and beyond any vulgar calculation.

With young people, at least in London, now scarcely able to afford their rents, let alone a studio space on top, the old legend certainly seems distant today. And the artist’s studio of the paint-splattered or plaster-dusted old format has now become a museum exhibit in its own right. From Bacon in Dublin to Brâncuși in Paris, we can enjoy historic studios curated in vitrines, little environments resembling tableaux from old natural history museums. Elsewhere, across the world, the heirs of famous artists upon their demise have felt unable to surrender the magic of the great one’s studio and have sought to preserve it in situ as a visitor destination: charismatic, abandoned chapels where prayers are no longer said.

Heroic scope

James Hall has form in taking on enormous subjects: his previous books offer overviews of sculpture and of the self-portrait. His new volume takes in, over 15 brisk chapters, an entire survey of the working lives of European artists and craftspeople from Ancient Greece to Anselm Kiefer’s fabulous studio-as-industrial-landscape in the South of France. Hall’s emphasis is on the handmade: he includes medieval scriptoria, goldsmith’s workshops and rooms in which women did embroidery, but not photographic studios—and, indeed, largely omits photographs, too, as a source of evidence. Given the heroic scope of the project, and at the same time the fragile identity of the studio—let people in and it becomes a shop or a school, make it too private and it becomes a home—it is a challenging history to write.

The artist’s studio of the paint-splattered or plaster-dusted old format has become a museum exhibit in its own right

The chapters come in different shapes, some biting off chronological chunks while others are thematic. Perhaps the most satisfying sections are those focusing on certain physical characteristics of studios, evoking particular aesthetic properties recurring in different times and places.

The chapter on mirrors in studios, for example, is a lovely assembly of stories and images. With Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) as its keynote, this includes an account of Joshua Reynolds painting his rather comical allegorical portrait of James Beattie (1735-1803), the Scottish poet and philosopher, who is shown casting down the freethinking spirits of David Hume and Voltaire with the common sense of his orthodox learning. Reynolds placed a mirror in front of the sitter and behind himself so that Beattie could watch the progress of the work, not get bored and so sit still.

Also a pleasure is Hall’s chapter on “chaste space”, now taking a lead from the fascinatingly empty studio imagery of some of the German Romantic-period painters, especially Caspar David Friedrich, with its legacies both in the 20th century’s more purist branches of Modernism and, later, in popular interior design.

In other chapters, the pull of broader social history can lead the story a little too far from the basic problems of inhabited and mythologised space. This can result in phases of blurred focus and a story that falls back on a history of art already over-familiar, using an approachable, transparent language that perhaps struggles to penetrate some of the more opaque corners of this special category of room. In the chapter “Women in the Studio”, for example, it would have been good to see a more imaginative effort to reconstruct the negotiations women artists must have had to make when moving between home, shop and studio within the same house.

This is not to say that The Artist’s Studio is ever anything other than extremely readable, wonderfully illustrated, capacious in its reach and altogether a book to send the reader back to their favourite art with a new set of questions about exactly how and where it was made.

James Hall, The Artist’s Studio: A Cultural History,Thames & Hudson, 288pp, 125 illustrations, £30 (hb), published 21 October

Nicholas Tromans is an independent art historian based in London. His latest book, The Private Lives of Pictures: Art at Home in Britain (Reaktion), is published this month

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