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!

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 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:

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera

There have been many books on Norman Rockwell over the years, but Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera is the first to shed light upon the reference photographs from which he often painted. Published in 2009 this book features a selection of images from among some 18,000 black and white negatives that are held by the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge, Massachusetts. This collection of images was recently digitised to ensure their preservation and this book is a product of that effort to make the photographs more accessible to researchers and the general public.

Admirers of Rockwell’s art should consider this book unmissable, given the fresh ground that it covers. It will also have some appeal to illustrators and portraitists, because of the description and examples provided on Rockwell’s working methods.

Why did someone with such a sharp drawing and drafting ability take such heavy recourse to use of photography? It should be understood that Norman Rockwell laboured under huge pressure to produce paintings at a rapid rate to meet deadlines of magazine editors and to satisfy other lucrative commercial commissions for his art. And complicating his pressured work pace, Rockwell was a perfectionist, always striving to render convincing details from foreground to background.

To spare time from doing dozens of preparatory drawings for each painting, Rockwell eventually began instead to use photographs and select among them before choosing a final composition. He quickly discovered that the snapshots enabled him to convincingly capture a broader range of exaggerated facial gestures and dynamic action poses than his models could sustain during a long sketch sitting. These two melodramatic elements soon became key ingredients in a contrived Rockwell tableau. The photos did not displace the need for models, costumes, props or any of the rigour of painting preparation, like sketches and colour studies. But these snapshots did ensure great efficiencies: they saved re-sittings by models, avoided movements of sunlight; and made possible a far more phenomenal output in one man’s career than otherwise could have been conceivable.

Author Ron Schick, an expert in photographic art, explains the considerable efforts that went into composing the photos and what Rockwell was aiming to conjure up. It is a tale of an artist scouting locations, assembling props, and amusingly positioning and directing the models like actors in a play. Part of Rockwell's appeal lies in his ability to show heightened moments of human drama and capture the personality of his models in his art. And part of the appeal of his paintings is that they accurately chronicled the clothing fashions, home decorations, workplace layouts and personal oddments of contemporary American life. His works have an air of authenticity that the artist could not have achieved by working from the imagination alone. Norman Rockwell excelled both as a comedic storyteller and a quasi social historian.

This book shows some of the tricks used by Rockwell for getting the best out of life models, including using stacks of books to support the feet of figures as they feigning leaps, running, or other exertions "in motion". We also see how folding screens in varying shades were used to help the artist accurately capture the tones and outline of a model, without distraction from background clutter.

The book is well designed. The author and publishers juxtapose paintings opposite source photographs, sometimes showing how several separately photographed models might be assembled on canvas into one composition. It becomes apparent how the artist selectively modified and spliced poses, or added or varied details in clothing and props, to drive the narrative power of his final paintings. I particularly like the photographic montage used to model the hilarious paintings “The Gossips” and “Day in the Life of a Little Girl”.

Unfortunately there are few pencil sketches and colour studies reproduced in this book. These were the intermediate elements of Rockwell’s endeavours, bridging the creative gap between a jigsaw of photographs and a final image transposed to canvas. The such inclusions are a couple of colour sketches at the very end of the book. Perhaps such working drawings are hard to locate and many may have been discarded?

A fairer criticism is that, while there are some photos showing close-ups of hand gestures and faces, there are no zoom-ins to the detail in the final paintings. It would have been nice to see Rockwell’s brushwork up close – to understand where he preferred to lay down impasto, or where he would utilise thin washes of colour. Given Rockwell’s famed perfectionism, I would expect that these paintings would demonstrate some beautiful technique when viewed up close.

This book is printed at a size that makes it an affordable buy. But in my view the typical Rockwell artwork is so abundant in detail that these images really ought to have been printed in a much larger format. The best of Rockwell's art was commissioned to appear on the front of popular magazine the Saturday Evening Post and his lively pictures packed maximum fun onto these large format covers. For this reason many previous books about Norman Rockwell's work have been printed at about 14 inches high, commensurate with the size of a Saturday Evening Post. For instance among my most prized illustrative art books is the three volume series on Rockwell’s work for the Saturday Evening Post magazine, reproducing all the Rockwell covers at original size (I saved pocket money to buy two volumes in my late teens, then I had to wait over a decade for the advent of to hunt down the third). With several more Norman Rockwell books also sitting at the same height on my shelf, I would really like this latest one to measure up to the unofficial "industry standard".

The visual extravaganza in this book is well supported by pithy and pertinent stories about the featured artworks, spiced up with quotes from Rockwell, his models and other associates (Rockwell was a little abashed at his use of photography, but he has written several accounts of his working methods for the benefit of fellow illustrators who have sought to learn his secrets). Schick threads the book together with writing of his own that is informative and perceptive. The book is a good length at over 200 pages, but Rockwell was such a prolific artist that it is hard not to wish for even more of his paintings in this enjoyable monograph.

Rockwell’s nostalgic and entertaining artworks have earned him a huge following. I would suspect that this book could sustain a sizeable print run and potentially justify reprints in future. I keenly hope Mr Schick and his publishers might be persuaded to consider an expanded second edition of this book which could pack in even more artwork and blow up the images to the proper size at which Norman Rockwell had designed them to be seen.

Book specs:
Hardcover, 224 pages, 11.1 x 9.3 inches

Other recent books on Rockwell:

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Theodore Chasseriau: The Unknown Romantic

Yale University Press’s monograph on artist Theodore Chasseriau is a tribute to one of the great French Romantic painters who has had little recognition in the chronicles of art history. The book is aptly titled “The Unknown Romantic”. I’ve chosen to highlight this book to fellow art lovers because it is packed richly with seductive works by an imaginative artist and because, after its initial release, the price of this book has come down to real bargain territory – an unfortunate sign that the publishers may not have completely succeeded in their objective of making this “unknown” better renowned.

As a boy prodigy of 11 years old Theodore Chasseriau was admitted as an apprentice to the studio of Jean Ingres, a giant of nineteenth century French painting. As a young man he enjoyed early successes and went on to a meteoric art career, before an early death at age 37. Chasseriau had artworks selected for the great French Salon exhibitions, he sojourned through Italy to study renaissance art and most importantly he travelled to Algiers, triggering a rich output of Orientalist works.

Chasseriau has been scornfully dismissed by French art critics as a precocious Creole (his grandmother was West Indian), while his style has been belittled for drifting between mimicry of his master Ingres (a photo realist of his day), towards resemblance to the art of Eugene Delacroix (a Romantic with a loose and fluid style). His hybrid style has made him a bit of a curious footnote in art history. After Chasseriau’s death, his output was widely scattered and in 1871 his most famous public commission was badly damaged by fires lit by members of the Paris Commune. One of his cousins was instrumental in collecting his works posthumously and donating them to the Louvre, an effort that made possible subsequent revival of interest in this artist. This volume helps rehabilitate Chasseriau’s name based on a complete picture of his output. The book helps reveal an artist with a strong theatrical imagination and a unique style that prefigured the sensual and dreamlike paintings of the Symbolist school which emerged a couple of decades after his passing.

Young Theodore’s penchant for drawing Oriental and Indian figures began at an early age, thanks to stories from a mostly absent father who engaged in all manner of adventures abroad (military, diplomatic, trading, spying and possibly embezzlement in between). And his move into an uncertain artist’s career was supported by his eldest brother who was left as head of the family. Recognising the boy’s talent, Ingres reputedly nicknamed him the “Napoleon of painting”. He drilled the lad in oil technique and fostered his knowledge of the progress of art: from Antiquity, to the Renaissance, to the Neo Classical movement. But a breach opened between the two after Ingres abandoned his pupil to live in Italy and as the boy began to socialise after hours with members of the Romantic school.

Chasseriau’s greatest success came in his mid 20s with a commission to paint 270 square metres of murals for the grand staircase leading to the Court of Audit in the Palais d’Orsay (later burnt down, and today reincarnated as art museum The Musee d’Orsay). Surviving and rehabilitated fragments of this monumental work are reproduced in this book, but I do not think these remnants are the real centrepiece of Chasseriau’s legacy. A more significant marker in his career was his stay in Algiers which unleashed experimentation with paintings of Eastern themes including Arabic battle scenes, Moorish dancers, Jewish families and fleshy harem beauties. These lively paintings are the real drawcard in this book.

Chasseriau’s exotic females were distinct: sensual, elongated and confident. One biographer wrote boldly that he “had the privilege of endowing the world of art with a female type whose physique and physiognomy had not existed before him.” His shimmering colours and stylised realism all attest to an artist that sought to put emotion into his work. In his words he strived to put “poetry in reality.”

The guts of this book is the catalogue of 256 paintings and sketches assembled for an exhibition at three venues, including in France and in New York. Each image is reproduced in colour and a small number are also supported by close-ups. Each artwork enjoys a short description, including interesting stories about some commissions, quotes from contemporary critics and background on the aristocratic sitters in the formal society portraits (a staple of the artist’s income in his early years). A strength of this book is its display of numerous compositional sketches, tonal drawings and colour roughs that were used to plan subsequent canvases. These help to show the artist’s working methods and are very attractive artworks in their own right. My one quibble is that some of the fine pencil sketches are printed too small to adequately bring up the detail.

Written and researched by a cavalcade of historians from art museums, this book sometimes lumbers under the weight of meandering history about the art circles and movements of the era. This is the heavy style of publisher Yale University Press, the pre-eminent organ of art history writing in the English speaking world. Fortunately in this book, the text does not cramp out the abundance of dazzling art. The book is also slightly larger than the regular Yale publication, a mark of quality that may have something to do with co-production with major French art institutions and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. The biographical chapters on Chasseriau are very readable, more so than the thematic essays that are inexplicitly jammed up front ahead of the visual and biographical survey.

This book does vindicate Chasseriau as an author of some stunning artworks. But it is also true that he shows the heavy imprint of influence by other masters (as argued by his critics). His portraits are alike Ingres’s portraits, including the preparatory pencil works. His later paintings do have the broad brushwork style of the melodramatic painter Delacroix and the comedic artist Daumier. But Chasseriau’s work is far less dark than either of these latter contemporaries. His uplifting compositions seek to find and extol the beauty in this world and in my view that is his unique contribution which marks his place in art history.

His murals for the Palais d’Orsay are said to have influenced the more famous muralist Puvis de Chavannes and, through him, he had an influence on the Symbolist movement. Chasseriau died of sickness and exhaustion from commissions to decorate two churches with murals. Had Chasseriau lived longer I believe he could have been to French art, what the prolific artist Tiepolo was to Italian mural art. I certainly see some stylistic similarities to Tiepolo which may hint at his true source of inspiration, perhaps a legacy of his travels in Italy?

It is hard for an artist to enter the pantheon of famous artists, without having good retrospective art books to their name, that bring their imagery together into one collection. This book does just that for Chasseriau, helping students of art history appreciate his achievements and what was distinctive in his art. But it will take wider and continuing recognition, for Chasseriau’s contribution to be better known. Disregarding the historical purpose of this book, it is also a great collectible for any admirer of Orientalist, Romantic or Symbolist art. This is artwork which commends itself to you on the strength of its beauty, not on a basis of a famous name.

Book specs:
Cloth bound hardcover, 432 pages, 12.3 x 9.5 inches, 326 illustrations (267 colour)

Recent books on some of Chasseriau's contemporaries:

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The 2009 Art Book of the Year

I will start this blog with a confident statement: that I declare Walton Ford’s “Pancha Tantra” to be the 2009 art book of the year. That is a bold assertion, but one made without diffidence.

This book at 15 inches tall is packed full of reproductions of panoramic wildlife paintings by Walton Ford. Ford is what you might loosely call a naturalist – a painter of nature with an old fashioned sense of fidelity to the anatomical proportions and whiskered details of God’s creations. On top of that he is a fantasy artist who flings his animal subjects into crazy social situations of mischief, conflict and comic chaos. While some of the scenes he paints involve implausible situations, he gives the animals a credible sense of character. Vengeance, humour, calculation – these are just a few of the thought processes infused into the faces and the gestures of these animated beasts. In these paintings we can identify not only the crimes, but also the motives writ on the faces of the perpetrators.

Ford pays hommage to classical natural history art, while at the same time bringing a touch of surrealism and storeytelling into the genre. There have been many accomplished wildlife artists before him who can capture the bird in flight or the predator mid-pounce, but few who seem to have put such personality and spirit into their subjects. Is Ford artificially investing his creatures with too much persona, or does he have a measure of insight and understanding that few other artists can match? In my view it does not matter whether the elixir that gives these animals such vitality is the stuff of imagination – if the animals come alive to us, then Ford has succeeded wonderfully.

The original artworks reproduced in this book are monstrous large, with many of the animals (alligators, great apes, tigers etcetera) at least as large as life. Prize of the herd in this book may be the multi-panel painting of an aroused male elephant, titled Nila. At 3.66 metres tall x 5.49 wide, the original artwork is quite literally the size of a young elephant. Bright exotic birds assembled improbably from different continents flutter about this massive beast and perch around the parading elephant from his head to belly, as if this creature were a planet with its own gravitational pull. In another painting a gathering of life size monkeys eat and play around a dignified outdoor table setting, looking like drunk revellers from a large renaissance banquet painting. Playing upon the intimidating size and power of many of these wild animals, Ford often paints them in situations of victory over man. A painting dated 1596 shows a lumbering polar bear triumphant over the bones and personal effects of an explorer, while in the background a shattered sailing ship creaks against an arctic shore.

Also unusual is that these works are all watercolours, painted onto huge sheets of paper. Watercolour normally lends itself to modest, even miniature work, because of the difficulty of handling the medium across large surfaces without washes drying in inconvenient places. Furthermore watercolour on paper is unforgiving when mistakes are made and the consequences of the risks are greater when the painting is on a gigantic scale. Ford works skilfully in the medium making heavy use of the “dry brush” technique – a method that avoids bleeding, helps keep brush lines precise and allows the overlay of variegated colour (for instance to paint a mass of silky fur).

To admire the original massive works, which can cover whole gallery walls, viewers would need to stand several metres back. Ford aides the viewer with some sharp linework, a technique has a secondary benefit of allowing the works to reproduce wonderfully well in book format. Pancha Tantra includes a nice mix of cropped close-ups bled to the edge of the page - allowing us to study the overlay of wash and brushstrokes, with long shots of whole works - at a size where we can still appreciate the fine detail. On my count this book displays 72 artworks on single pages and a further 41 spread across double pages. In addition there are 43 pages with crops of interesting details, plus 17 double pages devoted to cropped highlights. Some artworks have several pages devoted to them, including the wide shot and multiple close-ups.

While these images are show beautiful beasts and colourful fauna, the situations depicted include some moments of drama and visceral brutality. Bill Burford writes a lively introductory text that focuses on the drama and tension in the artworks. Hinting at the anthropomorphic quality of the work, he differentiates Ford’s intimate conception of animals from other artists who view animals only in terms of their bodily functions to feed, fly or run. “[N]o ne has painted beaks with such violent relish. Conventionally the beak defines a bird’s ability to find food. ... In Ford’s hands ... [f]or a pink flamingo, in the last broken thrashings of its life, the beak is a trumpet of pain. In a tug-of-war for a small scrap of flesh, ... the beak is a vice, a tenacious tool of possession. Between a bee-eater and a grey hornbill ... a mortal instrument.”

The background washes on Ford’s paintings include mock mould spotting and branching mildew, to make the paintings look ambiguously like nineteenth century prints. At first glimpse the effect is deceptive. But these artworks are far more lively than conventional stiff animal portraits. And the wit and allegory packed into some of the works can make the viewer do a double-take.

The Massachusetts artist openly confesses to sourcing the ideas for his compositions primarily from photographs and illustrations in old books, rather than via environmental observation. Video footage of his studio in the Berkshires (on the publisher's website) shows a bookish cavern where the table surfaces are piled with a jumble of books and the floor is literally carpeted with them. “My books might get stepped on, tripped over, or hit with drops of watercolour. They might be splayed until their spines break ...” says Ford. His conception of a library is a little different to mine, but he is living proof of the advantage for the working artist of having an ample and ever-growing supply of books for reference and inspiration. To lend authenticity to his animals, Ford often visits the New York Museum of Natural History, to study their stuffed bestiary and draw hundreds of preparatory sketches.

Many of his paintings have faint annotations around the edge of the paper, extracted from a variety of literary sources. Ford’s cursive handwriting includes quotes from diaries and books written by explorers and other observers of wildlife from past centuries. What might initially seem like an artsy gimmick is much better understood when you learn that some of the monumental works that Ford paints can take up to a year to complete, a challenge that calls for a deep well of inspiration to help drive the artist on. Ford says of his book collection “The books provide words that transform into images.”

The appendix to this volume surveying his work contains several pages of excerpts from the animal stories which inspire him (both factual and fable) and shows which passages correspond to which paintings. It is the inclusion of these extracts that makes redundant the need for much of an accompanying text. There are few exercises more contrived than the tedious attempts by some art historians to psycho-analyse and deconstruct the intended meaning and narrative of artworks.

I have reviewed the second edition of this book, which is a smaller version of the limited first edition that came out in 2007 in a larger-than-large size at a premium price. The earlier “Collector’s Edition” comes in a cloth covered box and has a leather spine with gold embossing. Best of all, I understand that the first edition boasts 12 horizontal and 4 vertical foldouts, which provide poster-like treatment for some of the best artworks. But I have conferred my 2009 “Art Book of the Year” tribute on the economy version of the book, because it still provides a marvellous folio of artworks to the mass market and does this at an agreeable price. Many of the main competitors to Taschen would have charged at least twice this price for a book this scale.

The title page says that this book is “Directed and produced” personally by Benedikt Taschen, the indefatigable founder of the Taschen publishing powerhouse. It has always seemed to me that Taschen is an art lover first and a publisher second. He applies both design and economic genius to present great artwork in unstintingly huge and handsome books.

The only disappointment to this book is the absence of any chapter on Ford’s working methods or career story. There is only a two page basic ‘Biography’ that includes a chronology of exhibitions, awards and references to previous media stories on the artist. In conjunction with the release of this book Taschen has partially filled this information void by uploading on its website some interesting press articles and a short video about Walton Ford narrated by the artist. But the problem with many websites is that older content can be taken down after just a couple of years. Perhaps the Collector’s Edition with its additional 34 pages has a more rounded biographical treatment? Maybe I’ll have to save for it and find out!

All told this is an irresistible book. If you haven’t yet bought it, you may have sore regrets should you wait. The post-release price won’t last and shouldn’t last, it is too good to be true for a book of this size and quality.

Book specs:
Hardcover 320 pages, 15 x 11.4 inches, 173 colour illustrations (across 231 pages)

Judging criteria for Art Book of the Year accolade:

In judging this to be " 2009 Art Book of the Year", I have applied the following yardsticks.

1) Uniqueness of overall content - such as imagination of artist, or publication of new or rarely seen work.
2) Illustrative content - high standard of artistic creativity, technique and narrative power.
3) Writing standard - persuasiveness and clarity of the author's language, plus interplay between the text and illustrations.
4) Printing quality - image resolution, colour balance, size of images, quantity of images and paper quality.
5) Binding standard and craftsmanship - strength, durability and presentation.
6) Value for investment at time of release.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Favourite No.2 – Benozzo Gozzoli's Procession of the Magi

[Poster link to the left, link to book below] 

One of the separating points between illustration and fine art is that illustrations are designed to look their best in a printed reproduction, whereas fine art can often only be properly appreciated when standing before the original artwork. This is why printing quality and reproduction size are of axial importance when it comes to designing an adequate book on fine art.

In my first posing on what is my "favourite art book", I revealed I’m a sucker for good close-up images of artworks. When selected carefully and photographed well, a cropped image of a portion of a painting can make you almost feel as if you are standing in the same room as the artwork. My second choice of “favourite” book has cropped images by the crop load.

The “Chapel of the Magi”, edited and mostly written by Cristina Luchinat is a most unusual art book as it only depicts a single artwork. But as artworks go, this is no conventional single rectangular wall hanging. The Procession of the Magi is a fresco painting that wraps around the interior of the family chapel of Medici dynasty, the leading patrons of the renaissance in the Florence. The chapel frescos painted by Benozzo Gozzoli include three main panels (respectively for an East, South and West wall), with one for each of the Magi Kings and their retinue travelling by horse and foot bearing gifts for Christ. On the Northern side of the room is a recess for the alter (the “chancel”) which is hemmed by an altarpiece painting of the Adoration of the Child* and side panels with Angels Worshipping. There are also some minor paintings interspaced between these major features in the room. (* The altarpiece is by a different artist Filippo Lippi and was installed in the chapel before the fresco was begun. The original of the altarpiece is now in Berlin, while a copy sits in its place in Florence.)

This artwork was started in 1459 by Benozzo Gozzoli and painted directly onto the paster inner walls of the chapel. The chapel is a room within the centre of the Medici palace. Thanks to double walls around the chapel (that provided concealed escape passages and places of refugee), the dazzling paint on strong polished plaster surfaces has been relatively well preserved from the ravages of over 550 years of damp, heat change and settlement of the outside supporting walls. This book was based on photographs taken after conservation work and cleaning which revealed the full brilliance of the murals and some details that had gone unnoticed for years. The editor of this book helped lead the conservation effort and is a leading art historian in Italy.

This thick book ambitiously reproduces a mass of detail from the huge work, mainly through photographs that are printed at a 1:1 scale (showing figures and scenery identical to their size on the original fresco). Various other books have had photos showcasing this painting’s ornate renaissance costumes, exotic beasts and picturesque landscapes with white turreted castles. But thanks to new close-up photography, this book brings exposes additional tiers of intricate details within the elaborately detailed composition. In particular you can see how blends of colour and changes of tone are all built up through fine cross-hatched brushstrokes. There are few places in this artwork with flat blocks of consistent colour. The whole work ripples and explodes with the energetic flow of intricate brushlines.

The 1:1 plates run to the edges of the pages (no margins), so while the book is not particularly tall, it has images as large as can be found in much bigger books. Some 37 of the crops run across two full pages, without loss of detail in the page join. The other 97 single page close-ups are placed opposite non-distracting matte black pages, like large glossy photos in a wedding album. The details on these glossy plates include faces of Kings and servants, horses' heads, monkeys, peacocks as well as prosaic background scenery. There are of course also panoramic shots on reduced scales that show large sections of the work and how adjoining segments of the procession flow into each other.

This is a generous and belaboured printing job, an example of the kind of quality that sets the publisher Thames and Hudson among the most munificent of their industry.

The book gives a pretty complete description of all the architectural features of the chapel interior, from the decorative ceiling down (the geometric floor patterns get their own chapter!). Much more interesting is the history of threats to the artwork, including plans to demolish the chapel to make way for a monumental staircase within the palace. Unfortunately a couple of sections of the fresco have been lost due to the subsequent additions of internal windows (ouch – there goes Magus Balthazar’s pages carrying his gift to Christ). Other wall changes were made to accommodate a new stair landing overhead. Lippi’s alterpiece was removed during the time when odious priest Girolamo Savonarola briefly ruled Florence (fortunately this work was merely taken into republican ownership and not lost in Savonarola's 1497 “bonfire of the vanities”, as were other paintings and precious objects).

The book explains some of the convoluted iconography packed into the murals (serpents, lambs, eagles etc) and their symbolic meaning. The writers highlight how the painting reflects the contemporary Florentine countryside, buildings and decorative Gothic costumes (such as jousting attire). The book pinpoints among the throng of characters some Medici personalities, other prominent citizens and possibly two self-portraits by Gozzoli. At least thirty three portraits have been identified by historians, some painted posthumously. But this book dismisses some theories that identify certain Magi with particular historical figures, or interpret three pretty horsemen to be Medici daughters.

It was already well known that in ornamenting the fresco, Gozzoli rendered certain details with expensive colours made from compounds of Gold, silver and crushed lapis lazuli gems. Modern artists will be interested to know Gozzoli used both tempera and oils (commonly used interchangeably in that era). This book is in part a record of the conservation work that was done on the painting and one chapter therefore goes into a laborious scientific analysis of the paints, media and fixatives used across the entire artwork. Chemists and conservators may get excited by that section.

One minor draw-back of this book is that it tells us a limited amount about Gozzoli’s career, other than his effort through this major project to please and befriend the Medicis. And there is soooo much more that could be said about the tumultuous politics and fortunes of the Medici dynasty. But such oversights are no matter – this book is intended as a tribute to just one of Gozzoli’s artworks. One of the contracts for his work on the chapel stipulated that Gozzoli must “attempt to outdo all his previous paintings to date.” The wonderful images in this book and the painstaking restoration that preceded this photography show, I believe, that Gozzoli not only surpassed himself but outshone all his competitors.

The Procession of the Magi is my favourite artwork, so this book elicits a biased assessment from me. In picking this book as one of my two “favourites” from my shelves, I am conscious that favouritism and merit do not always marry. But I contend that the editor and publisher have tackled an ambitious challenge and have distinguished themselves by doing great justice to this story of one of the finest art treasures on earth.

I’d be interested in hearing from fellow art book collectors: what is your favourite art book?. Is my notion of a “favourite” a fair one? What makes your favourite art book/s so attractive and cherished?

Related discussion:
Click here for my first blog on the question of "what is your favourite art book?"

Book specs:
Cloth bound hardcover, 388 pages, 11.3 x 10.3 inches, 203 illustrations (184 in colour)

To find a copy on Amazon, click here: The Chapel of the Magi: Benozzo Gozzoli's Frescoes in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi Florence

Sunday, January 10, 2010

What is your favourite art book? Part 1

There are many more bad art books in print than good ones. A principal aim of my blog posts is to help others avoid unfortunate choices. But a harder form of assistance is to distill the best among the choicest of books – the “most exalted among nations”.

Very recently someone asked me “What is your favourite art book?” I found it a challenging question that had me suck air for a moment. It’s a good question that deserves a considered answer and I figure it’s a good question for a blog post.

The question arose when I had some work colleagues come around to visit recently for a Christmas party, mainly accountants and tax law experts by background. At the end of the evening we wound up in the library and quite a few went browsing the shelves and flicking through some art books. None seemed too familiar with art – one colleague insisted that a nearby wall-poster showing a Hiroshige woodblock print was actually a painting by Monet and I don’t think I convinced her to the contrary! But whatever the stereotypes about accountants and other pointy heads, the Monet fan and a few of the others professed they could easily get lost among my art books for some hours. And a group of people who are ordinarily uninvolved with art fell into a little discussion on the general subject.

Then the question asked was “what is your favourite art book?” I found it an awkward question to grapple with. It’s rather like asking the music lover “what’s your favourite CD?” There are so many good books around, that I concentrate my dollar only at the upper end of the spectrum of what I like, so in truth I have many “favourites” across numerous categories. There a couple of art books I’m very keen on and don’t yet own, which I suspect would be among my favourites if I did own them. But as things were, when I was put on the spot I pulled a couple of books I do own off the shelf and claimed that these were my favourites.

One was a large book on my favourite painter Ilya Repin (a Russian great from the "Itinerant" movement) and the other a book about my favourite painting “The Procession of the Magi” by Benozzo Gozzoli (an Italian Renaissance painter). I picked these two books not because they contain the best writing, research or structure. I have other books which are favourites in those sorts of categories, on which I will write another day.

Favourite No.1 - Ilya Repin

I bought a magnificent book on Ilya Repin’s work in 1991 (the book was published in 1985). At the time I purchased it, the dust was still settling from the collapse of the Soviet Union and souvenirs from the former USSR could be bought for a song. I was a Uni student at the time and was both grateful and gobsmacked that I could snap this fine prize up for $10 from a little bookshop in Hobart, Tasmania – at the farthest end of the Earth from Russia. It was the best buy I’ve ever cinched.

“Made in the USSR” is seldom a mark of quality, but one fact that the art book buyer should know is that the Soviets invested lavishly to mint the most beautiful art books. By comparison up until the late 1980s Western publishers were mainly producing art books that had few colour plates, muddy colour balance, fuzzy images and poor quality paper. My prized book on Repin was printed by Aurora Art Publishers in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), an English language imprint run by the Communist machinery of state propaganda. This book is an artefact from a time when Russia excelled at book launches and missile launches, at the expense of an awful lot of other basics. It has taken almost two decades to see a couple of decent Western books published on Repin and while the quality of production has come into the modern age, these books still don’t measure up to the Aurora version.

Repin lived from 1844 to 1930 and he is best known for paintings of the hardships faced by impoverished peasants, depictions of epic events in Russian history and portraits of Imperial Russian aristocracy. The authors of this book recognise that Repin enjoyed more fame in his lifetime than any other Russian artist of the nineteenth century. After the 1917 revolution he lived in Finland and declined on the basis of old age various invitations from Soviet art institutions to visit them in his homeland. After his death, enthusiasm for Repin grew among Soviet art Tsars and he began to be extolled as a model of Social Realist painting. The introductory essay of the book shows the official ideological spin: “This work is an early expression of one the most valuable qualities found in the creative work of the advanced Russian intelligentsia – a feeling of personal responsibility for the fate of ordinary people and for the historical destiny of their country.”

As an art book this is beautifully composed. Many of the reproductions are large enough that you can see the woof and warp of the canvas. Some of the largest paintings are straddled over two large pages and have additional plates dedicated to close-ups of focal points in the painting. The close crops make apparent the swish of brushmarks and the shadows beneath the globdules of paint. It is these large close-ups that allow you to properly appreciate Repin’s ability to capture lifelike details like the spit of a candle flame, or the patina of an elderly face. Best of all is his ability to unmask human expressions and emotions, whether the insecurity of an aristocratic girl or the curdled spite of a 17th century Tsarevna. Most haunting of all is the mad bloodshot look in the eyes of Ivan the Terrible and the creepy cascade of blood across his fingers as he cradles his dying son after he has fatally bludgeoned him. These excellent reproductions put you in the same room as these forceful paintings and through these paintings you are transported to another age.

In the introduction, art historian Grigory Sternin writes some insightful observations on Repin’s attitudes and interests. But contrary to the judgment of Soviet historians I don’t think Repin fits seamlessly into the thread of subsequent Socialist Realist painting – his psychologically raw work shows the grittiness of ordinary life and human misery. By comparison artists under the Soviet regime often masked suffering in rural and industrial life, in their portrayals of stoic/joyous “model workers”. Repin’s best works are not confined to contemporary “social” observational studies as is suggested in the introduction (and as was often the case in the post revolutionary order), rather his best works include some imaginative recreations of centuries old events - ranging from Christian stories, scenes of Cossack mischief and upheavals in Russian history.

All up this is a fine specimen of publishing – a model of how a great artist should be commemorated in the epitaph of a book. There are many better organised and more comprehensive art history books, but few strike the standards of this one for quality of the reproductions. If you can find a copy on Amazon, then snaffle it up. But don’t expect to pay $10.

Book specs:
Cloth bound hardcover, 291 pages, 14 x 11 inches, 193 plates (mostly colour), a 15 page biographical timeline (with photographs) and a 36 page catalogue of 327 works (with 162 black and white illustrations)

Finding a copy:
Copies can occasionally be found at Amazon. With a long out of date book like this it may be prudent to contact the vendor before paying for an order, just in case the listing is old.

See these two Amazon listings:
a) Ilya Repin Painting Graphic Arts or
b) Ilya Repin; Painting, Graphic Arts

Next post:
What is your favourite art book? Part 2
Benozzo Gozzoli and The Chapel of the Magi (my second “favourite”)

Recent books on Repin: (note that these are not reprints of the book reviewed above)

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The ongoing saga of Nazi art theft

As mentioned in my review of "Rescuing Da Vinci", the theft of European art by the Nazis continues to cause fallout decades on. There are a couple of topical examples I can mention that have been in the news.

In early January 2010 it was reported that three institutional owners of art have reached an out-of-court settlement over three Picasso paintings which came into their collections some years after were sold in the 1930s by a Jewish owner to avoid confiscation by the German state.

The original owner of the artworks Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (a nephew of the famous composer Felix Mendelssohn) sold the works in 1935 as the Nazi state was ratcheting up economic laws against the Jews. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s actions were prescient. The art dealer who bought the works off Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (himself Jewish) in turn suffered confiscation of much of his collection by the Nazis. The works which are at the centre of legal action escaped the Nazi net and were sold abroad through a series of subsequent owners.

Decades later the descendants of Mendelssohn brought a law suit against their present day owners seeking restitution. Prior to the settlement, there was a court decision by Judge Jed Rakoff favourable to the plaintiffs. The decision is precedential as it establishes that a legal remedy can be obtained where assets were lost under circumstances of duress, without needing to prove that the Nazi state stole property or ordered a sale. Under the settlement the heirs of the original owner will receive compensation, while the artworks will remain with the existing owners. The three paintings covered by the ruling include: The Absinthe Drinker (1903) owned by the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation, Boy Leading a Horse (1905) owned by the Museum of Modern Art and Le Moulin de la Galette (1900) owned by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. The court case has been running for several years and in the interim a court injunction was slapped on an attempt to sell The Absinthe Drinker.

And in a second piece of recent news from December 2009, an American World War II veteran John Pistone has decided to hand in a souvenir he took when his army unit entered Adolf Hitler’s Bavarian retreat "Berchtesgaden".

Hitler had a 31 album collection of photographs of artworks (most of them stolen) which he intended to house in a massive art museum to be built in Linz. Pistone had picked up one of the leather-bound albums to prove to friends and family he had been in Hitler’s home, little realising the significance of the spoil of war as an important record of looting by the Nazi state.

Hitler’s photographic volumes contained records of works stolen from public institutions and from private collectors across Europe, with some of the works confiscated or obtained under threat before the war from German Jewish owners. Recently a friend of Pistone got in contact with Robert Edsel (author of "Rescuing Da Vinci"), who flew in to see the 3 inch 12 pound artefact and recognised its great significance. Edsel was involved in 2007 in the discovery of two similar photographic albums, owned by the family of another American soldier stationed in the Berchtesgaden area. Edsel had previous arranged for the purchase of these records and their donation to public archives.

Rather than sell his book, Pistone is giving the book to the German Government in a ceremony to be held in Washington DC. Unfortunately 11 of the 31 albums are still missing and there are hopes that this news story may inspire others to come forward with some of the companion albums.

Decades on, the book is still not completely closed on the story of the greatest art heist in history.

Related blogs: Book review of Rescuing Da Vinci

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Worlds of Amano

"Worlds of Amano" is a survey of thirty years of work by celebrated Japanese illustrator Yoshitaka Amano, who began working in anime at the age of 15. His work is a glorious fusion of some ancient and modern styles. His paintings variously include traditional Japanese motifs, some manga-style melodrama and very fluid line-work which is suggestive of an Art Nouveau flavour. This might sound like an eclectic mix of styles, but these three influences all stem from Japanese origins and Amano fuses them together in a cohesive way. Amano has a distinctive personal style that makes him one of the most popular of contemporary Japanese artists.

Like most prodigious illustrators, Amano has illustrated a great many books over a career. This volume does a good job of singling out the most sparkling and lively illustrations and drawing them together into a single satisfying collection. This survey shows the adaptability of Amano's art to both very traditional artistic enterprises (illustrating everything from operas to epic literary works) and to very modern usages (for video games, shlock fantasy stories and book covers). As editor Jean Wacquet says, Amano’s work breaks down some of the artificial barriers of the art world "between high art and popular culture". In later stages of his career Amano has branched into stage designs for theatre, lithographs and exhibitions in upmarket galleries in New York, London, Paris, Los Angeles and Berlin. But he remains an active contributor to the world of Japanese fantasy art. I have chosen this book for one of the first reviews on my blog, precisely because I believe it will appeal across a wide range of tastes.

This book was originally published in France (a country where illustration is held in highest regard) and has now been translated into English. This volume mostly features colourful acrylic and coloured ink paintings and a smaller number of silk screens and Indian ink works. Amano has a penchant for elaborate costumes and many of his characters are attired in traditional Japanese dress, renaissance European finery, the pantaloons and turbans of Arabian princes and medieval battlegear. And, like other artists before him, he cannot resist indulging in some paintings of nude women reclining - in Amano's case rolling in plush flowerbeds or among mangles of highly decorative bedsheets. One paradox of Amano’s work is that while human activity is always at the centrepiece of his work, his figures often have a wan and listless look to their faces, utterly lacking in personality – his characters often seem like tranquil whitespace amidst the maelstrom of decorative costumes and backdrops which he splatters around them.

The pages are reasonably large, not huge, but sufficient to do justice to the fine detail in these paintings. The chapters single out key illustrative achievements from his career, such as The 1001 Nights, his covers for magazine Shishi-O and his conceptual art for the Final Fantasy video game. The selection is a very good one. By comparison I’ve previously bought Amano’s book "The Magic Flute" (an illustrated poem inspired by Mozart) and that collection of work was a bit flat by comparison. "Worlds of Amano" picks out the gems from across a lifetime of experiment and achievement.

The one pity of this book is that there’s no proper biography anywhere besides a one page timeline of the main exhibitions and events in Amano’s career! I’d have liked to read an interview with the artist, or some discussion of his techniques or sources of ideas. The highs and lows of his career may also have been good reading and an inspiration to others. What space there is in this book has been given over to the many illustrations, but, sucker that I am, I won’t complain too loud about that.

Book specs:
Hardcover, 156 pages, 10.9 x 10.9 inches, 118 illustrations (mostly colour, some double-page spreads

Other books featuring Amano illustrations (I particularly commend "Dawn"):

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Public Galleries and their publications

Below is a slightly provacative email I sent last year to the director of National Gallery of Australia, in which I provide a few unsolicited thoughts on what a mad book collector would prefer to see on the shelves of the Gallery's giftshop. I live in Canberra, so the NGA is practically in my backyard. The criticisms I make of some previous exhibition catalogues by the NGA can, I believe, apply to many other public galleries (but there are some obvious exceptions from that generalisation - like the wonderful Metropolitan Museum of Art for starters!).

In a way this letter is a bit of a manifesto-cum-wishlist for what I seek from an art book publisher, so I figure this letter is apt for one of my first postings on this blog. The NGA has quite a dynamic new director and he wrote a nice reply indicating sympathy for some of this thinking (hopefully not just humouring), so I much look forward to future developments in the gallery's publishing program.

Book buyers have a couple of ways of sending market signals on what we want - for the most part we let our dollars do the talking. But there can be a time and place for consumers sending more detailed messages ...

"Dear Mr Radford

I am writing as a regular to the Gallery and would like to pass on my thoughts concerning the publications put out as catalogues for your exhibitions. First however I'd like to convey my appreciation for the steps you've taken to clarify the collecting focus of the Gallery and to give that vision life, through new acquisitions, sensible loan arrangements with state galleries, the addition of the permanent exhibition space for Asian and Indian art, as well as very fitting exhibitions (eg: Crescent Moon).

I'm writing because I believe that there is further scope to build upon the vision you've mapped out and enhance the NGA's reputation by lifting the standards of the NGA's publishing operations to a world class level.

While the NGA has invested in some nice catalogues over the years, they have often had certain flaws that are typical of the exhibition catalogues published by some other public art galleries. I make my observations as someone who has invested a bit collecting art history books over many years and as someone who has, in the usual narky manner of a collector become more discerning and fussy with time.

Good scholarship is something that is obviously a given with any public gallery catalogue, be it a catalogue rasionne, a survey an art movement etc. Unfortunately the good scholarship tends to have a "crowding-out" effect, that means that reproductions of artworks are often pinched down to unflattering sizes, as the page space is forfetied to the write-ups. It is sadly quite common for public galleries here and abroad to fall for the old self-defeating economic vice of favouring the interests of the producers over the preferences of consumers. Yes the good staff research should get recognition in print, but there's no need to blow the centrepiece artworks into the margins of the catalogues. I do believe that the lay public usually buy art books for the artwork foremost, and the scholarship is a secondary consideration. It is unfortunate when the former is sacrificed for the latter (and many of us would be happy to have books that deliver both!). I suspect this preference for decent sized reproductions would be common to the avid art book collector, the student, the retiree and most other types of art book buyer. The most successful art publishing houses that flourish without public subsidy are well aware of this consumer preference and they do very well at delivering books that never skimp on the visual treat - eg: Thames & Hudson, Taschen, Phaidon, Abbeville, Harry N Abrams, Skira (just to name more obvious operations with English language print runs).

There are a couple of conflicting forces in art publishing these days. On one hand improved printing technology has made it far more affordable to publish a book with outstanding production values. On the other hand a book that contains a couple of hundred images can be prohibitively costly for the commercial publisher where they wish to reproduce works that are held in public collections and have to cough up fees levied by public galleries to photograph works. It's a fact of life that Governments will expect such fees to be in place to deliver some non-subsidy income ("return on capital" etc etc). Such charges however are not such a hurdle when it's the public gallery which is acting as publisher. Clearly public galleries are negotiating among friends over such fixed costs and they can photograph without restraint from their own collections.

To get to my conclusion, I have the following pleas for your future publishing efforts. Please consider enhancing the size of the books (or at least give us more full page plates, more close-up crops etc) and please give us decent binding. Some astoundingly beautiful exhibitions have passed through the NGA doors these last couple of decades and it is such a pity that they have mostly been celebrated with softcover/flexibind books that are little more robust than a set of Women's Weekly magazines. I would suggest that if the economics of stern binding do not stack up for an entire print run, then please consider trying a smaller second print run for cloth-bound hardcover catalogues (with premium pricing). Two tier print runs are something that the commercial houses have done to good effect and they've managed to make the numbers work to the satisfaction of their operating ledgers. Surely among the thousands of visitors and friends of the gallery there will be an eager corp who would pay extra for a collector's edition of a catalogue.

I'm conscious that, thanks to concern about risk and insurance, it's been getting harder in recent years to persuade overseas institutions to loan works to Australia. If the NGA built a reputation for producing top calibre books that did justice to the works that were loaned, then this might help leverage the argument for loans to support future exhibitions. A great art book publisher is one that can build a market not only in their own country, but also abroad.

The NGA is a fine institution where, as in other fields of endeavour, Australia punches above its weight. It would be fitting if the legacy of each of your great exhibitions can live on in the form of books which are treasures in own right and which are built to last.

Sorry to toss you some unsolicited thoughts, from an crass consumer point of view. I do wish you very well and look forward to following your good works with continuing interest.

Yours in appreciation"

Rescuing Da Vinci

Robert Edsel’s book “Rescuing Da Vinci” chronicles one of the most fascinating and tumultuous periods in Art History. During World War II the Nazi state engaged in a massive and systemic plunder of art treasures, stripping objets d’art from public galleries, churches, libraries and private owners. This book recounts the story of how art custodians and officials in a variety of European countries sought to protect their collections from discovery, theft or damage from aerial bombardment. And the tale reveals how the ruthless machinery of a totalitarian state was deployed to steal, or acquire ‘gifts’ and ‘loans’ through coercion.

In this relatively short episode in history a vast proportion of the greatest art treasurers of Western Civilisation were confiscated (one estimate is 1.5 million objects with 100,000 of museum quality still missing). Many of the works passed into private ownership or control of avaricious Nazi officials, with Herman Goring notorious as an instigator and leading beneficiary of the mass theft (he lined the walls of his home with great masters taken from across Europe). Adolf Hitler himself was the principal director of this whole affair, personally involving himself in planning of exhibitions of the trophies and sketching plans for a ‘Fuhrer Museum’ in his home town of Linz where he ultimately planned to house much of the plunder.

This story has been told before in other books in greater detail, but Edsel brings the drama to life in a very well illustrated and decent format book. This book was an independent publishing effort and yet Edsel has made few economies in producing a very beautiful tome. The writing is not conventional history treatment, it’s much more zippy, with Edsel weaving the tale together through a concourse of captioned photographs, illustrations of artworks and reproductions of wartime documents. While this is mainly a story of European tragedy, the author has a patriotic concern to highlight the part played by the United States in seeking to find, identify and repatriate stolen art to their proper owners (the Allied Armies formed a military unit that became better known as the “Monuments Men” or “Venus Fixers” among the troops).

Allied Commanders including General Eisenhower issued a number of orders: barring the trafficking or export of artworks; directing resources to support the return of works to their rightful owners; and asking that great buildings and architectural monuments be spared where possible from the collateral damage of war.

By the war’s end the Allied treasurer hunters had found over 1,000 repositories for the stolen works of art, including the Alt Aussee salt mines containing more than 6,500 paintings and Neuschwanstein castle which housed over 6,000 articles including jewellery and fine furniture. Unfortunately where the Soviet forces discovered horded Nazi loot, many of the rescued goods were brazenly stolen a second time.

To this day the consequences of the Nazi art binge are still with us, as new claimants come forward every year seeking return of artworks stolen from their families, or as museums and galleries uncover through research that the patrimony of certain objects in their collections may be tainted where there are unexplained passages in time where the trail of ownership runs cold.

As art books go this is an unusual one. It is not the definitive history of these events (much more could be said of some of the great collectors who were victims of theft, or of works that remain missing or in dispute), but it is the best illustrated history of this epic tale of greed, audacity and devastation. The satisfying epilogue to this story is that Mr Edsel is fortunately a dedicated/obsessive fellow and has been pressing on with a range of projects to tell other aspects of this quite significant story.

Book specs:
Cloth bound hardcover, 302 pages, 11 x 9.7 inches, nearly 500 illustrations (mostly b&w photos).

Two other books and one DVD on the same subject: