Book reviews: The Spanish Civil War | Modern Art | Shooting Victoria

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Michael Kerrigan reviews the new books by Julián Casanova, Brad Finger and Paul Thomas Murphy

The Spanish Civil War by Julián Casanova

(Tauris, £12.99) * * * *

Serious in its own right, but crucial too in its wider repercussions, the Spanish Civil War was one of the 20th century’s decisive conflicts. Julián Casanova is among its foremost scholars, but his latest book is pretty much a pocket history. And an exemplary one at that: lively and vivid (with striking photos), it’s at the same time marvellously clear – a considerable achievement, given an alphabet-soup of antagonists, in uncertain alliances, and a complex and changing situation on the ground. More than a brilliant synthesis, though, this book offers new information and new emphases, not least in its fascinating account of the Church’s role as cheerleader for Franco and his “Crusade” – and of the violent anticlericalism that swept the republican zone.

Modern Art by Brad Finger

(Prestel, £14.99) * * * * *

This book sets out to trace the development of modern art through a series of “groundbreaking moments”. But is it really just “Modern Art – the Greatest Hits”? You might suspect so, and indeed a riffle through these pages presents a parade of celebrated works – from Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe through Picasso and Pop to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Accessible as it is, however, Brad Finger’s text is more ambitious in its aims, making the case that modern art really did proceed in a series of revolutions and reactions. Monet’s Impression Sunrise; Matisse’s Harmony in Red; Kandinsky’s abstractions; Lichtenstein’s comic-book canvases: works like these completely reinvented art.

Shooting Victoria by Paul Thomas Murphy

(Head of Zeus, £25) * * * *

So, when Goya cracked that one about the sleep of reason bringing forth monsters, did he mean a) that we have to cleave to reason for fear of a terrible alternative; or b) that reason itself has a terrifyingly unreasonable underside? The question resurfaces whenever we try to take a broader view of modern civilisation, and it nags away through this highly original take on Victorian Britain and its discontents. No fewer than eight individuals tried to take pot-shots at the Queen; she herself spoke of a “mania” for the sport. All the assailants could be described as cranks – yet their insanity was clearly British-made. And, Murphy argues, their actions helped to shape the state, its legal system and its modern monarchy. The reign of reason, 19th-century-style, is thrown into a revelatory new perspective by this approach through some of the “monsters” of the age.