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Show me that again and I'll scream

The fight to rescue iconic art from chronic overexposure

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Michelangelo's "David."

Van Gogh's "Sunflowers."

Munch's "The Scream."

Leonardo's "Mona Lisa."

What makes works of art like these into universally popular icons? And what happens to them when ubiquity and familiarity – pushed to extremes by endless reproduction and unstoppable commercial exploitation – breed not so much contempt as simple numbness?

Such works are known to millions. And though millions can't resist going to look at them in the original, particularly as part of a vacation package, these works have become almost impossible to see and feel afresh. You might say they have become so public that the private intimacy and one-to-one contemplation that art demands have been lost.

"The Private Life of a Masterpiece," by Monica Bohm-Duchen, endeavors with some success to provide fresh insight into eight such iconic works – though why they have become iconic remains as unexplained as ever. (The other four she looks at are "The Third of May 1808," by Goya; "Olympia," by Manet; "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," by Picasso; and Pollock's "Autumn Rhythm.")

This lucid book is primarily for the lay reader, and, mercifully, is largely free of art-history jargon. Her essays are always thought-provoking and informative. They amount to "biographies" of each work.

She looks directly at them, but, using a wealth of background material, looks even more thoroughly at their hidden or forgotten "life" – their historical and geographical context, the cultural climate that fostered them, and the character of the artists who gave them birth. All this is really just the regular stuff of art history.


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