Publisher Phaidon's latest art endeavor, The Art Museum, presents the collection of an imaginary museum with the greatest works from art collections around the globe. That museum would have to be imaginary — the book itself weighs in at 18 pounds, measures 16 1/2 by 12 5/8 inches and runs nearly 1,000 pages.
The Art Museum is divided into 25 galleries, as opposed to chapters, and each gallery is divided into several rooms, which all told include reproductions of more than 2,700 works.
If this one museum were real, there would hardly be any need for another.
"This is the only place that you can go — the only physical museum that you can go — and find [a] complete overview of art history ... from cave paintings to works made in the last decade," Amanda Renshaw, Phaidon Press' editorial director, tells NPR's Robert Siegel on All Things Considered.
Renshaw also oversaw The Art Museum. The idea for the project began when Phaidon publisher Richard Schlagman suggested imagining a museum with unlimited space and an unlimited budget.
"It didn't matter how famous the works were, how large, how small, how inaccessible to the public," Renshaw says.
A team of 100 people — curators, teachers, researchers and editors — spent the next decade imagining and developing that museum. Tracking down the works presented a considerable challenge.
For example, one alter piece from the 14th century was divided up in the early 18th century. The team found the individual parts spread around Europe in different museums and private collections so the entire piece could be reconstructed in the book.
Once the works of art were collected from corners around the globe, the editors created a unique method to showcase the massive project. The book does not have page numbers, but instead mimics the actual museum experience by dividing works into galleries and rooms.
Renshaw gives the example of how a group of abstract expressionist artists might be portrayed. The first room shows the masters of the genre before they reached the peak of what they were trying to do — so not the iconic Rothko or Jackson Pollock or Barnett Newman that might immediately come to mind, she says.
The next room, she explains, would show a quintessential work by each of the masters; the one after that might show a group of Barnett Newmans together.
"And then the next room is a group of Pollocks together; and then you even get a corridor of Pollocks on the next page," Renshaw says.
The format gives a sense of context and what's to come, an important feat in a coffee-table-sized tome. The book is hefty not only in size but also in cost; at $200, it's a significant investment.
Renshaw imagines a few different markets for The Art Museum: people who know an enormous amount about art history, those who enjoy going to galleries and museums, and even families. It could be used as a resource on a shelf or as a group experience for sharing, she says, because of the large format of the book.
"There are many pictures on the page to compare and contrast, and sometimes we also reproduce one work of art over the entire expanse of the pages, Renshaw says. "So you really feel that you can see it properly, look at the detail and celebrate the enjoyment of it."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Now, the biggest book interview that I've ever done. From Phaidon Press, which publishes art books, comes just about the biggest book I've ever seen. Weighing in at 18 pounds, measuring 16 and a half by 12 and five-eighths inches and running nearly 1,000 pages, it is called "The Art Museum." It presents the collection of an imaginary museum. It would have to imaginary because it includes pictures from the great museums, galleries and even private collections of the world.
If this museum were real, there would be hardly any need for another. Amanda Renshaw is the editorial director of Phaidon Press and of this project. She joins us from London. Welcome to the program.
AMANDA RENSHAW: Thank you.
SIEGEL: And why don't you explain the point of this book.
RENSHAW: Well, you're right. "The Art Museum" is an imaginary museum and it's a museum that appears in a book and it gives the reader a complete overview of art history from cave paintings to works made in the last decade. And so this is the only place that you can go, the only physical museum that you can go and find this complete overview of art history.
SIEGEL: Yes. It is billed as a complete overview of world art explained with visual clarity. It is divided into 25 galleries, as opposed to chapters, and each gallery is divided into several rooms, which all told include reproductions of over 2,700 works.
I want you to describe the challenge during this 10-year long project of getting access to and photographing all of them.
RENSHAW: About 10 years ago, our publisher suggested that we should imagine an unlimited space and that we had an unlimited budget. Now, what would we put into this museum? It didn't matter how famous the works were, how large, how small, how inaccessible to the public. And so we've spent 10 years with a team of about 100 people - curators, teachers, researchers, editors - to find what we believe to be the most amazing collection that tells you the story of art.
For example, Duccio's Maesta, which is a very early 14th century altarpiece, was actually divided up and cut into pieces in the early 18th century and those different pieces of this altarpiece are spread around Europe in different museums. And what we've done is gathered them together and reconstructed Duccio's altarpiece in this book.
SIEGEL: It is such a huge project. When you're telling someone about this, is there ever a page you say, go turn to this gallery in that room and you'll see what I'm talking about?
RENSHAW: A great way to see how the book works is if you to the abstract expressionist room.
SIEGEL: Okay. Hold on. Let me look at the...
RENSHAW: Yes. So there's...
SIEGEL: All right. Rooms 372 to 452.
RENSHAW: If you go to room 374...
SIEGEL: Room 374. Okay. Whoa.
RENSHAW: This page shows you the masters of abstract expressionism before they reached the peak of what they were trying to do. The Barnett Newman and the Rothco and the Pollock aren't quite what we think of when we imagine a Pollock or a Barnett Newman or a Rothco. Then, as you go into the next room, 375, there is one quintessential work by each of those masters. And then, as you go onto the next room, there are a group of Barnett Newmans together and then the next room is a group of Pollocks.
SIEGEL: Of Pollocks together. Yes, yes, here.
RENSHAW: And then you even get a corridor of Pollock when you turn over the page.
SIEGEL: So you're almost indexing what's to come.
SIEGEL: The first page teases us.
RENSHAW: Gives you an overview.
SIEGEL: Sort of a billboard, sort of, of what's coming next. This is such a big book, when it's open, it is coffee table size, only if you make sure never to have coffee or do much of anything else with that table. Literally, where is the place for and where is the market for a book like this at $200 a copy?
RENSHAW: I think it's for three different types of people. It's for people who know an enormous amount about art history. It's also for all the millions of people who go to art galleries and it also a book for, I think, families. It may be the only art book that you have. It is a resource. You might have it on a shelf. You could put it down on your table and look at it as a group. It's a great sharing exercise. There are many pictures on the page to compare and contrast and, sometimes, we also reproduce one work of art over the entire expanse of the page as it's opened, the double page as it's opened. And so you really feel that you can see it properly, look at the detail and celebrate the enjoyment of it.
SIEGEL: Amanda Renshaw, thank you very much for talking with us about "The Art Museum."
RENSHAW: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Amanda Renshaw is editorial director of this huge book called "The Art Museum" and also of Phaidon Press, in general. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.