Art historian Annie Montgomery Labatt has a new book that takes readers “from cave paintings all the way to modern art.” Published by Trinity University Press, Art History 101…Without the Exams: Looking Closely at Objects from the History of Art is based on the popular lecture series that the San Antonio native presented at SAMA between September 2013 and 2015.
Annie shared some of her thoughts about the inspiration behind the lecture series and book, how she chose the featured artworks, and the connection between artworks in San Antonio and masterpieces in museums in art centers such as New York, London, and Paris.
How did the lectures at SAMA come to be?
When I finished my dissertation, I worked at the MET and the Cloisters, finished up a postdoctorate there, and was also teaching at Fordham University. Then I got an opportunity to work at UTSA, so I came in as an adjunct. They had a position as an assistant professor and in that time, I would have conversations with my friends. They would say “Oh, it’s so interesting that you do art history. What does that mean?”
I got the idea of doing a series just talking about great masterpieces and what makes them great, how to make the time to sit and look, how to look, and why that’s so valuable, enriching, and fun. That’s how it all got going—talking to my friends and realizing this world, this field, was a little unknown. I could take some time and share with my colleagues and eventually my community, San Antonio, what you do when you look at art and how awesome it is.
How long have you been working on this book?
I guess it started with the beginning of the lecture series and that was in 2013, with the research, the papers, and the lectures. When I finished the series, I went to Trinity University Press, and I told them about the project, and they thought that that was a cool idea for a book, so I worked on turning those lectures into chapters. Little by little we made it into a very beautiful publication.
How did you choose which works you wanted to feature?
I really wanted to make sure I was trying to cover a broad blueprint of art history. I really wanted to do it from the cave paintings all the way to modern art, so that was one of the parameters that I had in mind. I also picked pieces that I really loved teaching about in the classroom; pieces that I felt opened dialogue in special ways and that would provide an opportunity for the audience to just enjoy drilling in on details that were relevant to the culture, the audience, and the artistry of the time. Generally, it was things I loved teaching, things I loved looking at, and things that I was really excited to share with my audience.
Were there any chapters that were more difficult to write than others? Easier?
I don’t think so. I loved them all. It’s just different kinds of research. I think the chapter on Assyrians was newer material to me and because of that it was even more surprising as I was getting into it. It’s also not my language, so that was another thing as well, but gosh yeah, I’m obsessed with the Assyrians as much as anything else. So, I would say that was the least familiar material as I was going into it. But yeah, amazing stuff.
What do you hope people take away from your book?
I just hope that they take away a passion for art, for looking and taking time to look, and to appreciate all the stories that can unfold when you really sit with a work of art. And the other thing is that I really tried to tie those masterpieces that I selected to treasures in San Antonio monuments and works of art, some of which are at SAMA, some of which are in the community —and articulating the fact that although we spend a lot of time thinking about works of art that may not actually be in San Antonio, that may be in big museums in Paris or London or New York, we have our own examples that tie in historically speaking, visually speaking, formalistically to those masterpieces out and about. Just honing your eye for those pieces makes your world view, your daily life in San Antonio even richer.
Signed copies of Art History 101... Without The Exams: Looking Closely At Objects From The History Of Art are now available at the Museum Shop.