Heads Up!

A review of The Art of Looking Up by Catherine McCormack

Written by Jenna Collignon, Editor, Matrix Group Publishing

In a world so preoccupied with looking down at our phones and computer screens, and getting hauled away by our busy everyday lives, we hardly ever look up anymore. The Art of Looking Up by Catherine McCormack acts as a pause button on the crazy that our world has become, and has us looking up to see the beauty in the world around us. Every single page is dedicated to showcasing various ceilings through stunning photography and well-thought-out profiles for each of the buildings. This book is a decadent slice of what art resides in the blank spaces of buildings around the world.

First impressions

This sizeable and commanding book is incredibly eye-catching. At first glance, the front dust jacket features a shot of the beautiful and complex ceiling of the Imam Mosque in Iran (which is featured in the book on pages 32-37). When you open the book, you are immediately transported into this world of power, hierarchies, and art. 

The concept of the book centres on the idea that looking up is part of the human condition; as young children, we often look up for reassurance and guidance from those older than us and, as we age, we learn that our society is oriented around hierarchical structures. Looking up is to look toward something better, because the higher up something is, the better it is. 

The feeling that comes with looking up at these beautiful, awe-inspiring ceilings in person is something close to complete reverence. Through this book, McCormack gives us the next best thing to being present in person and witnessing these ceilings. There are beautiful, full-page spreads, along with the occasional four-page fold-out, which adds in such a rich layer of beauty to this book.

Religion

Rightly so, this chapter comes first. As one of the most fundamental aspects of humanity, religion is one of the main origins of the hierarchical structure, which this book focuses on. With God and Heaven above us, everything below pales in comparison. The ceilings featured in this chapter inspire an imitation of heaven; invoking the idea that mankind has struggled with since the dawning of religion: a higher power and a paradise in the afterlife.

One of the places detailed in this section is the Vatican Palace, in Italy. The book introduces it as “art history’s definitive ceiling painting” (39) and features a large four-page fold out of the masterpiece created by Michelangelo. The text that accompanies each profile is incredibly detailed yet presented in a well thought out and concise way that is incredibly informative and that sticks with you as you read through this book. 

Culture

McCormack then moves to profile ceilings of various entertainment establishments, including libraries, opera houses, casinos, and museums. These ceilings, rather than inspiring a Heavenly view in a church, act as pieces of art to entertain passers-by. Most often, these ceilings are celebrations of the art that is going on within the buildings’ walls or are influenced by the cultural happenings in the city when these masterpieces were implemented. 

One incredible example is how everyday transportation in Sweden has been magnified by beautiful art installations in over of the 100 (or so) stations in the network of underground train tunnels. These tunnels act as a way to brighten up a mundane everyday activity of travelling around the city, whether to work or home or elsewhere, with a fair amount of intriguing artwork that is incredibly different every station you go to. 

Power and Politics

Throughout the book, McCormack does claim that a lot of the buildings and concepts discussed overlap with one another, which is most evident with Power and Politics. In both of these chapters, the buildings featured are places of kings, princes, and world leaders. The beautifully decorated ceilings are depictions of the power that courses through their halls. Most often, there is a sense of drama and splendour in these artworks – however, occasionally, as is with the Muslim palaces of the Alhambra in Granada, the artwork featured there is an act of humbling and show more of “the spirituality of creation” (123). 

Finishing thoughts

All around the world there are these incredible masterpieces tucked away in the blank spaces of buildings. As I was going through The Art of Looking Up, every page instigated a feel of wanderlust so intense I was ready to book a flight and tour the world of these ceiling masterpieces. 

I honestly cannot say enough about this book. It is breathtaking. If the world’s masterpieces intrigue you in any way, definitely pick this book up. Whether you’re just flipping through and viewing the art featured there or attentively reading each of the pages fully, every page transports you to these places.

Catherine McCormack

About the Author

Catherine McCormack is a writer and art history lecturer based in London. She regularly teaches at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Dulwich Picture Gallery and UCL, where she completed her PhD and was a Teaching Fellow. Her writing has been published in The Independent, Architectural Review, Stylist, Glass magazine, LABEL magazine, and in international academic journals and museum exhibition catalogues. She is also resident art expert at Blacks Club Soho and is also the author of Women in the Picture (Icon Books, 2020).