10 Questions with Dick Frizzell


Q1: Just how much fun was it making this amazing book?

Well … it was fun ... and then it wasn’t … and then it was … and then it wasn’t … and then it was … and then it got really exciting.


Q2: And how much hard work?

The hardest bit was maintaining the tone of hysterical excitement that I somehow managed to capture in the first unmediated stream of consciousness. And then my publisher insisted that the text make some sort of sense, and that’s when the hard work started.


Q3: Did you ever get to the point where you thought, why the hell did I ever start this?

Yes. When Dr Mark Stocker started fact-checking the text and our lovely copy editor waded into it.  I seriously panicked for a spell there — thought my book was sinking into academia! Well, fat chance of that happening as it turned out!


Q4: At first blush it’s Art History for Dummies, right? But it becomes clear pretty early on that you are absolutely not taking the piss. (Sorry, there is no question mark there but it is a question.)

Well, it didn’t start out as an Art History thing. I initially thought I could explain myself through something as practical and pragmatic as the history of paint. And then I started doing a bit of research and the rest is, er, history. I was constantly conscious of balancing my frustration with academic obfuscation with my respect for those very disciplines. I think the thing that kept me level was the fact that I knew I was writing from the point of view of the painter, with the understanding that getting the stuff from the palette to the painting hasn’t changed much in 32,020 years.


Q5: The Frizzell versions of the original works are such a feat. Which was the most challenging and why?

It started because I realised that I was going to have to somehow get around the fact that all those historical artworks are out of copyright, but the images of the artworks are owned by the galleries who curate them. And once I started ...


Q6: And you didn’t even try to go there for that frothy Fragonard work The Swing. How so?

If you look at the works I chose to illustrate, as a whole, you’ll see that I’ve chosen very graphic works or graphic details. The Fragonard has to be seen all of a piece to make any sense and I’m just not that much in love with it to go there … all those LEAVES!


Q7: This book really helps readers get to grips with key periods in the history of art and some big ideas about what art is. Did it also help you settle some things in your mind as you worked on it?

Yes. I have become a bit of an art-history bore, but don’t worry, it’s all receding quickly. The ‘big ideas thing’ I’m still grappling with. Every day I think of something that ‘should be in the book’!


Q8: Cubism. An ongoing love affair for you?

Yes. It’s what kicked off the whole book really. Going back to my formative years at art school. Cubism was the first ‘concept’ I actually grasped. In a curious way I think the book traces Cubist principles all the way back to the Renaissance, where paintings began to be structured from front to back as well as corner to corner. It’s the over-arching structure of the entire narrative.


Q9: And ART of course. Where would we be without it?

My mother seemed to get merrily by without it, and I’d probably be happy enough if I was still illustrating School Journals. But that wasn’t going to happen was it?  I’ve always been fascinated by the Balinese who have no word for ’art’, but just strive to do everything properly. (Something that obviously and sadly doesn’t apply anymore). I think the fact that good art ‘disrupts’ is probably its prime virtue. I see that time and time again in my book: action, reaction, on and on! In fact, I’m hoping the book itself might disrupt a bit.


Q10: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

I hope, vainglorious though it sounds, that ‘my’ readers come away with an open and airy sense of the story of art, and how it is essentially an illustrated record of the evolution of our efforts to understand each other and our relationship with the world we live in. The main problem — and the most fabulous thing — is that the harder you try to demystify something like art, or philosophy, the more mysterious it gets. Creativity is really just the ability to see when a philosophical organising principle is past its use-by date and finding ways to refresh it. The idea that art helps us to keep ’seeing’ the world anew (and hence continuing to value it) is probably my bottom line.

‘The world was not created once and for all, but as often as an original artist is born.’ — Proust