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 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)


  1. I found your blog through the recommendation of Alyson Stanfield, (an
    artist consultant) and am enjoying your knowledgeable commentaries. I am an artist with my own small art library which I have been collecting since I was a teenager. Already you are making me familiar with some artists I had not been aware of before. Thanks.

  2. Welcome Karen! I too paint (not often enough though) and began collecting art books as a teenager. It was a passion that just grew. I think a good art reference library can be great inspiration and really helps in ideas for composition, colour etc. I'm pleased to hear these posts are of practical assistance. PS: I've checked out your blog and like both the paintings and the new studio - it looks made for a flood of light. Regards

  3. Thanks, Dan. I'll be interested to see what other interesting art books you comment on in the future. One of my favorites is on Alex Colville.