Art Book News

This blog provides reviews of art books, including recently published releases and old classics in the second hand bookstores. My aim is to help fellow art lovers build a collection of richly illustrated art books, with the help of discerning advice about the grandest visual treats and which books are mediocre. This blog mainly focuses on books about individual artists (old masters to modern). We can't all afford to collect original masterpieces, but we can all afford a good art book!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that gave the World Impressionism

The “Judgment of Paris” is a lively account of the French art scene in the decade leading up to the birth of Impressionism. Author Ross King tells the stories of proud and enterprising artists, while colourfully explaining some major European political dramas that exploded in the late nineteenth century and had reverberations in the world of French art. This is a broad sweep of history poured into one book, but it is a racy read that will pull you in.

Any avid art lover would do well to know the story of the birth of Impressionism and this book is a fine resource for those unfamiliar with the saga. This history exposes the vanities, flair and impetuousness of various artistic personalities from the nineteenth century. The astute reader may find amusement drawing some parallels between these distant melodramas and some behaviour among today’s art elites and the creative fringes.

The setting for this story is Paris at the time of the Second Empire of Emperor Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte III. This is a city of indulgences, known for its mammoth art exhibitions, society balls, absinthe addicts, cafes and rampant prostitution. Napoleon III was a benign autocrat, who knew little of art but who cannily sponsored entertainment in many forms to distract and titillate the Parisian population.

The storyline of this book revolves around the annual Salon exhibitions organised under the aegis of the French government. The Salon was an annual extravaganza held in a cavernous exhibition hall, drawing huge crowds of visitors. Artists craved acceptance into the Salon, because the inundation of press reports on the event could help ring overnight fame. Ross King describes the early careers of a number of artists who went on to become founders of Impressionism. But this book principally focuses on the career fortunes of two artists – one a celebrated and successful conservative, one an unconventional agitator. Both had surnames beginning with the letter “M”, so they were exhibited in the same room at the Salon. At different times they would take turns at providing the drawcard art in room “M”.

Edouard Manet was an ambitious but unsuccessful artist with obvious technical shortcomings, who spent most of his career seeking recognition from, but being rebuffed by, the French art establishment. For decades Manet’s loose style of painting was derided, as was his provocative choice of subject matter (such as a prostitute in a bordello, or a nude in a public park).

Lacking in technical polish, Manet lacked nothing in persistence and self belief. Excoriating reviews by art critics helped him achieve fame that came without the benefit of commercial success. Many of his works were made legendary by the ridicule heaped upon them and they drew crowds for all the wrong reasons. But in his last few years, as Impressionism gained a foothold among collectors, his sales appeal came good. As the collectors turned, so many critics too came to acknowledge his merits.

The book also traces the career of Ernest Meissonier, a neo-classical perfectionist who became renowned across the world for nostalgic paintings of French cavalrymen, swordsmen and statesmen. His greatest achievements were panoramic battlefield scenes that paid homage to the exploits of Napoleon Bonaparte. From early in his career Meissonier commanded lucrative prices, eventually drawing the wealthiest of collectors, ranging from American industrial magnates to British Royalty.

King recounts how Meissonier and Manet both started as outsiders in the eyes of the French art elites. An earlier generation of artists had dominated the successive selection panels of the Salon and official bias was towards heroic paintings of Greek mythology and Christian parables. Favouritism fell upon artists who had won previous recognition in other official art competitions, or who had secured commissions to paint murals for great public buildings. Manet and Meissonier join forces at the start of this story in petitioning for a more liberal regime for choosing exhibitors at the annual Paris Salon, so that fresh styles and genres could enjoy exposure. Their remonstrance was snubbed by the bureaucrats, until Emperor Napoleon III stepped in and declared he would order two simultaneous exhibitions, one of accepted art alongside one of rejected art. The “Salon des Refuses” added to the carnival vibe of the Salon season, and ironically, far from helping unfashionable artists, it exposed them to more punishment from the witty, hurtful barbs of art critics in the popular press.

After initially working in common cause, the two main characters in this book drift into opposing camps. Meissonier becomes the new figurehead for the triumphant school of conservatives who idealised nature and glorified the past. Manet found himself allied to younger realists who favoured rustic and contemporary scenes. This was a pre-Impressionist battleline in French art tastes. Despite all the schisms within the Parisian art scene, this was an undoubted heyday in the history of French art. The splendid artworks at the Paris Salon exhibition attracted visitors from around the world and helped secure French cultural prestige and dominance in the esteem of top art collectors.

The story takes a disconcerted twist when the French enthusiastically rush into a war with Prussia. The war of 1870 brought about a quick plunge into calamity as French illusions of greatness were shattered by the efficient Prussian military machine.

I think that the nub of this epic tale is that the excitements and vanities of the French art world were shaken pathetically into perspective by the turn of political events. One moment conceited Parisian artists engaged excitedly in conflicts of ego and taste, gaining media notoriety for their audacity or brilliance. In a matter of weeks their city is besieged, starved, bombarded and then occupied. National self-confidence quickly gave way to recrimination and civil war between communards and monarchists, ending with mass exodus of civilians, arson attacks on great buildings by the communards and summary executions of radicals by government firing squads. King describes the adventures and misfortune of artists who enlisted in uniform and those who colluded in a short-lived revolutionary municipal government. Petty differences between artists in a time of peace look feeble, measured against some of the searing animosities that arose after the debacles of 1870 to 1871.

It is easy for art history students to ignore the political backdrop to the emergence of new art movements. The shift from reverence of grand historic subject matter towards preference for plain domestic themes owes something to French misfortune and embarrassment of the battlefield. The emergence of the Impressionists also owes something to the small “p” politics of dissenters like Manet who had battled censorship, refused to conform to the stylistic conventions of the day and pressed for more inclusive and democratic forms of juried exhibitions. Ross King reminds us that Impressionists brought about their success by creating a fraternity of artists who shared ideas on technique and took succour from each other to defy prevailing fads and disregard the smears of the critics.

The writing is mostly dispassionate, balanced and engaging. King has done a deal of research, working with a range of art historians and getting some translations of source material from original French. The one let down of the book is the pitiful number of illustrations, comprising some token colour plates in the middle (away from the relevant text) and small black and whites spotted thinly among the chapters. The art addict feels teased to read descriptions in this book of hundred of artworks, while only a fraction of them are reproduced. This is an enjoyable text looking for a good publisher. Ross King gives us the tale of those who braved the impassioned judgment of Parisian public opinion and opened an imaginative and beautiful new chapter in art history.

Book specs:
Hardcover 448 pages, 9.5 x 6.5 inches (16 colour, 45 b&w illustrations)

Other books on Impressionism and French Art:

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Lucien Freud at Work

“Freud at Work” provides a photographic documentary of one of Britain’s greatest living portrait artists at work in his studio. Lucien Freud, now close to 90 years old, is an inveterate portrait painter who did not come fully under the glare of fame until around two decades ago. His works now command extraordinary seven and eight figure prices. While his style has changed markedly at different stages of his career, he has settled into a heavy impasto method that is now his hallmark and is a style that has become much copied by other artists in recent years.

This book pulls together mainly colour photographs taken in the artist’s studio by two observers, one a very long-term friend of Freud’s, the other an assistant and a model over many years. The photos do not, as the cover image and introduction suggest, show the artist in furious blurred motion attacking the canvas. The selection of photos mainly show the artist scumbling in paint before posed models; canvases midway towards completion; and completed canvases. There are also some (table-turned) camera portraits of Freud, showing an impish artist with big mischievous eyes.

The book is perhaps most interesting to other working artists, for the glimpses provided of Freud’s studio set-up and working methods. The photos show that this wealthiest of artists keeps a sparse and shabby studio, with plain undecorated wooden walls and a minimum of props for recumbent models (a tatty couch, ancient cot mattress, worn armchairs and a plain set of steps). A few sections of wall are smeared with surplus paint, while piles of discarded wiped rags litter a paint-flicked wooden floor. Light control seems to be the essential ingredient to this controlled environment, with curtains and shutters across the windows darkening the perimeter of the studio, while a sturdy central skylight highlights the day’s sitter and the wet canvas resting in the centre of the room on a lightly titled easel.

The photos show the staged emergence of artworks on white primed canvas, including changes in compositions as the paintings evolve (mainly these involve shuffles of background elements). It was fun to spot a change of mind as the only clothed figure in After Cezanne was eventually de-robed. We also see that Freud sometimes works on a couple of paintings simultaneously, arranging them alongside each other for ease of access.

It is revealing to see some of Freud’s most recognisable models including the podgy Leigh Bowrey and the hefty “Big Sue”. Both look rather bland and effete in person, compared to their intimidating and imposing doppelgangers on canvas. Only Pluto and Eli the greyhounds live up to the munificent grandeur of their oil portraits.

Each photo has a page to itself. But this photographic journal is a little weaker for leaving most photos uncaptioned, telling us little about dates, models or other germane background to each image. Some photos are ordered in useful little chronologic runs, but others seem poorly selected, including some out-of-focus snaps.

The book is preceded by an interesting interview with art critic Sebastian Smee, which, curiously, bears little relationship to the two collections of photographs. Freud is mostly prompted into regaling Smee with snippets from his life story and memories of his friendships with some of the characters and rogues around the British art scene in the late 20th century.

Freud is upfront about his take on other famous artists. In the grandiose paintings of Ingres, he sees a crafty humour. He admires Cezanne for his drawings, and Constable for making course smears of paint blend immaculately into landscapes. He has a disdain for the bright decorative art of Klimt and Lautrec. Surprisingly he casts Egon Schiele into the same category, dismissing him for affectations and desire to shock (“I always thought truth-telling was more exciting”). This disapproval seems ironic, given some similarities in style and subject matter between Schiele and Freud. He later confesses an interest in painting unusual people – “I’ve always liked circuses.”

The ancient workaholic sheds a little light on his techniques. He declares his concern to avoid repeating himself, perhaps explaining the impulsive and energetic look of his brushwork. Freud makes plain his aversion for being constrained by his drawings, at one point abandoning under-drawings (“I would make forms from the urgency of the paint, rather than having ready made forms”), although Smee points out he has lapsed back into the discipline of sketching outlines on canvas.

While this publication feels like two books in one (interview book, then photograph album), all contributors have achieved some intimacy with Freud and extracted from him some candour about his creative process. This quality cloth hardcover is printed by Jonathan Cape, an imprint of Random House, also responsible for two handsome surveys of artworks by Freud. This is a quirky book, but an essential collectible for anyone who wants a definitive set of books on Lucien Freud.

Book specs:
Cloth bound hardcover, 256 pages, 10.5 x 9.4 inches, 120 photographs

Recent books on Lucien Freud's art:  (please note I recommend against buying the book "Lucien Freud on Paper").

Friday, January 29, 2010

Sparrow series: Kent Williams

As an art book reviewer I regularly extol the virtues of large books, while conversely observing that books that scrimp on size have fallen short of their potential, no matter how well written and fastidiously designed. This book review is therefore a little out of character for me. It’s a short homage to a deliberately weenie book.

There is a very large and lucrative market for the miniature art book. Low income students, cost-conscious artists and other art book lovers living in thrifty circumstances typically favour the most affordable buys. And those who are only new to art book collecting will initially tend to buy books at a modest size and price that resemble “normal” reading on their bookshelves. Bookshelves themselves are a petty constraint for some book lovers, who can brusquely dismiss larger books because they won’t squeeze onto regular sized shelving.

The most lavish of art book publishers have long been attuned to this market segmentation and have offered up affordable small books. For decades Thames and Hudson has led the way with their 8 inch high softcover “World of Art” series, prominent at bookstores in rotating stands. This popular series covers art topics as diverse as celtic art, through to modern fashion design. More recently Taschen has entered the 8 inch contest with thinner but even more colourful art histories, with tougher flexibind covers.

This review singles out a nice book from an even smaller and skinnier series, that packs virtue into just 6 inches. Kent Williams is the third artist featured in the “Sparrow” art book series printed by IDW publishing (purveyors of comics and graphic novels). This book series features modern fantasy artists who paint in the netherworld between realism and cartooning. Sparrow books are most easily found in comic book stores, but can also be found in classier retail establishments and on the shelves of even serious art book collectors.

Kent Williams paints very gritty surrealist scenes. Part naked, muscular, sometimes erotic young adults are depicted in disjointed settings, as if in a dream or a flog or thought. Stray Japanese cartoon figures drift into some of the paintings, like extras in these strange dreams. Williams’ background bushwork is loose but his people are masterfully painted with all the perception of an artist who diligently works with live models, rather than from photographic stills. This artist is particularly skilled at painting shadow and mass, deftly picking out vivid hues of greens, purples and magenta in the human form. He cleverly builds light and shade by switches of rich colour, not by lightening up or greying down his palette.

This little book with its sharp printing does a good job of displaying all the detail and richness in these artworks. Little captions on each page show the dimensions, media and support for each painting (mostly oils on linen). In a way it is a flattery to this graphic artist to demonstrate that his images lose none of their punch in such a condensed reproduction, however splendid and impressive they look in a gallery setting on a large wall.

Books in the Sparrow series come at a trivial price. While the Kent Williams book only includes some 45 pages of artworks, it should be realised that much longer art books can often contain little more art thanks either to effusive writing by authors or budgeting decisions by publishers. If you want to pay a token sum for a compact portfolio of quality art, you cannot get much better value than this nifty book of dramatic paintings.

Books specs:
Hardcover (but no dustjacket), 48 pages, 6.2 x 5.8 inches, 45 illustrations

A couple more books from the Sparrow series:

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Art and Life of Harvey Dinnerstein

Brooklyn artist Harvey Dinnerstein has been painting portraits since the 1960s, focusing largely on the diversity of races and urban sub-cultures found in the polyglot city of New York. From his earliest days as a painter Dinnerstein has been a steadfast realist, even though abstract art was all the rage in the era and the place where he began his career. Brought up in a working class community with left wing family politics, Dinnerstein is drawn to painting characters from struggle street, but stylistically he is regarded as a resolute conservative. Now entering his eighties, this book is the first retrospective on Dinnerstein seen for 30 years.

The book "Underground Together: The Art and Life of Harvey Dinnerstein" starts with some informative biographical chapters on Dinnerstein, before moving to an enjoyable survey of his oil paintings, sketches and pastels. Dinnerstein frequently studies and admires great masterpieces on the walls of New York’s marvellous museums, but I think the authors of this retrospective go too far in conflating his work with the old masters he admires. Dinnerstein’s brushwork does look familiar, but I think that is because he paints in a style common to other realists born in the 20th century. His portrayals of people have an unshakeable element of caricature and some of his colours have the uniformity and intensity of “from the tube” paint. Technically and stylistically he is very good, but he is neither supremely masterful nor unique.

What makes Dinnerstein distinctive as an artist is his pick of subject matter. Unlike some other portrait artists, he has neither sought nor been consumed by commissions from business leaders and elite families. Dinnerstein selects unlikely subjects from the back streets of New York and leans towards African Americans, orthodox Jews, bearded musicians, scarfed migrants, sloppy students and latter-day hippies. Modelling in his studio, these candid figures look back from the paintings towards the viewer with suspicious, weary, or intense stares. The paintings are sympathetic, albeit idealised portrayals. While the subjects are arranged without posturing and airs, all the characters have some natural poise and pride about them. Dinnerstein has some feeling for the spirit of these people.

Dinnerstein’s most ambitious works are streetscapes. At times he has thrown himself into allegorical crowd scenes in an attempt to be political, but unfortunately these attempts come off looking contrived and camp. Far more engrossing are his melancholy depictions of ordinary life, like commuters slumped inside stuffy subway carriages, or navigating the city by bus, or wandering the streets through rain and cold. Artists are often at their best when they perceptively convey the grittiness and mayhem of their times. Dinnerstein is an exemplar of an artist who has had his eyes open to the changes in American life, while other artists have cocooned themselves in abstract, expressionist, or fantasy worlds.

The book reproduces the artworks at a good size. Included among the many plates of finished paintings are additional images of sketches, grey tonal underpaintings on canvas and photographs of the artist at work balancing brushes and mahl stick. It is gratifying to find that Dinnerstein has provided a few paragraphs of background for some of the featured paintings, to explain where he scouted out his subjects, what fired his interest, or how he set about staging the composition.

I think his most memorable works are his paintings of people riding the New York subway, so it seems fitting that the book is titled Underground Together. Until now Dinnerstein’s work has been little known outside New York (his profile has been "underground" in a sense), although this book will now bring greater exposure to this unfashionable traditionalist. I bought this new release from Amazon.com on the strength of the coverart, knowing nothing of the artist, with total disregard for the old maxim about books and their covers. I am pleased with this impulse buy.

Book specs:
Hardcover 208 pages, 12.2 x 9.3 inches, numerous colour illustrations

Other books on portraiture: (not related to Dinnerstein)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Odd Nerdrum: Themes

My most recent book review dealt with the upbeat artworks of Norman Rockwell. Rockwell painted a world that was idealised, to the point of caricature. He wrote “If there was [any] sadness in this creative world of mine, it was a pleasant sadness. If there were problems, they were humorous problems. I’d rather not paint the agonizing crises and tangles of life.” This is a quality that many of us like in art.

My next review is of a book on Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum, a painter who could not possibly be more different from Rockwell. Ghoulish, eerie and haunting, his work is bound to disturb you. Yet his uncanny talent for realism is so superb, that it is hard not to also be awestruck by his paintings and find yourself lingering in marvel at the power of these confronting images.

Nerdrum’s paintings are great inspiration for any artist to study. He has a dexterous ability to paint the human form, the dance of light across skin and the rich colours that dwell in the shadows and folds of flesh. An admirer of Carravagio, he has become a modern master of chiaroscuro, using nocturnal or twilight settings to create an air of apprehended danger. His working methods have traditional rigor. He grinds his own pigments, works from life models, visits Iceland to study its landscape and works for months to perfect some of his large canvases.

The book“Odd Nerdrum: Themes” is the most complete collection of Nerdrum’s paintings in circulation. At over 500 pages there is very little writing and a maximum of pages given over to artworks from over 40 years of work. The book is still in print and can be bought at a remarkably good price, unlike earlier books on this artist which have inflated through the roof.

The single introductory essay briefly recounts the artist’s turning point as an 18 year old art student when he visited a modern art museum with an overbearing art professor and a flock of credulous students. While the teacher hectored the students about the inner meaning of abstract art, Nerdrum lost interest and walked over to a traditional museum. There he admired the many old masters and eventually found himself drawn to a dark and moody Rembrandt painting of a historical event set in the first century AD. Later he was teased by his peers for his deviance and his old fashioned taste. Nerdrum then realised that “I had to paint in defiance of my own era. ... I would paint myself into isolation.”

Since he made that vow, Odd Nerdrum has flown off on an independent trajectory leaving a trail of controversy behind him. He has skirmished with the Norwegian art establishment (“an aristocracy of incompetents”), criticising abstract art for its failure in both technique and ideas. He surpasses the ability of most old masters in his realism and has won acclaim as one of the most collectible contemporary artists in the world. Nerdrum has built up a large body of artwork that is unique, bordering on inexplicable. While he paints with a pungent realism, the imaginary worlds he paints are nightmarish and unrecognisable.

The book starts on conventional ground with reproductions of some of Nerdrum’s paintings from the 1960s, including a few studio still life portraits and some impressive paintings of dramas set in the 20th century. But from his earliest days, Nerdrum also began painting post-apocalyptic scenes set in desolate landscapes. The book is packed with these horror-scapes: a tangled mound of naked human dead, a disembowelled man, blind wanderers, a woman being buried alive, naked figures in pain or death throes, abandoned babies. These depraved scenes seem to be set in some kind of dark age, with the inhabitants of Nerdrum’s world often wearing leather caps and robes of a medieval fashion. Their dirtied hair is sometimes dreadlocked and they inhabit a barren and uncultivated landscape. Sometimes though, the characters lug rifles, adding another element of illogic into the peculiarity of this misfit world.

Nerdrum does show some a tender moments including series of paintings of mothers and their babies, and couples in embrace. But for the most part his figures look lonely and fearful. Disability and insanity are common conditions in this miserable land of suffering. The frightening artworks defy understanding and this book fails to give any explanation for why this artist puts his talents behind such perturbing work.

A much better book for some background on the artist is Richard Vine’s "Odd Nerdrum: Paintings, Sketches and Drawings" (the first Nerdrum book I’ve bought). If you had to choose between the two I’d pick the former, for its more informative account of the artist's life story and his influences, as well as the superior sharpness of the close-up images. But this new book captures the latest five years of the artist’s output and is printed in an even larger format than Vine’s book.

Odd Nerdrum: Themes has an eccentric introduction. It features a fictional account of a young freelance art critic, struggling to write a newspaper review of a book about Nerdrum. The critic is very mindful of the contempt that his old art professor has for this reactionary artist who paints with confidence and arrogance, “as if a century of art history had never existed!” The wet young critic writes a verbose and shambolic review full of pretentious post-modern theories about Nerdrum’s art. Then the tangled review is rejected by the newspaper’s editor and replaced with a caustic review by the old feminist art professor who derides Nerdrum for his realistic technique and his conventional portrayal of women in maternal roles. The punchline of the farce is that one critic, with an inability to understand or appreciate the art, is supplanted by another who refuses to.

I wouldn’t pretend to understand this disconcerting artwork. But I don’t hesitate to extol the genius of Odd Nerdrum’s unrivalled skill in painting the human form and his ability to conjure an atmosphere of dramatic foreboding. This is an artist I have to admire inspite of my prejudices towards beautiful and more familiar art.

Book specs:
Cloth bound hardcover 554 pages, 12.5 x 11.4 inches, hundreds of paintings

Other recent books on Nerdrum: