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!

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.

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